Sunday, April 08, 2007

Mayo's Easter Parade

Mayo 4-07
Tyrone 1-11

For a team that have the name of the biggest chokers in the Green Isle of Erin, Mayo are becoming quite the second-half specialists. Mayo’s second-half comebacks against Cork and Dublin in recent weeks were more notable than their second half performance against Tyrone today – Mayo were behind against both Cork and Dublin while they actually had a one-point lead today, undeserved though it was – but Mayo nonetheless emerged from the Healy Park dressing room different men from the shades of the first half, and ended up humiliating Tyrone to a degree that the host team did not deserve to suffer.

Mayo went off at half-time having only scored once from play yet bizarrely holding a one-point advantage, 2-2 to 0-7. Tyrone were easily the crisper of the teams in the first half, attacking in waves, cracking over their points and seeing a rasper come off the crossbar. Mayo were still in the game thanks to Conor Mortimer, who a converted a penalty awarded for a foul on himself – despite the local support’s vociferous protests that Conor succumbs to the law of gravity far more than he ought to – and also scored a goal that was a touching homage to Jimmy Burke’s legendary Connacht Final goal in that magical summer of 1989, when the only way was up.

John O’Mahony had rung the first change just before half-time, when James Kilcullen came on for Aidan Kilcoyne, whom the questions did not really suit on this trip to Tyrone. Kilcullen joined James Nallen at midfield, with Pat Harte, who got through a mountain of work in the game, and shipped no small amount of timber too, moving up to fill the gap. O’Mahony tweaked further by replacing Enda Devanney with Trevor Howley early in the second half and suddenly the Tyrone challenge began to crumble as Mayo moved up through their gears. The bottom fell out of Tyrone’s world with about fifteen minutes to go when Owen “Muggsy” Mulligan let his frustrations, well past critical mass after a galling afternoon in the close company of Aidan Higgins, blow up by making a reckless sliding tackle, and Mulligan was ejected from the field. Two goals and some celebratory points later, and the Tyrone faithful were leaving Healy Park with heads down, to be told of their Division 1 reprieve when they got to their car radios.

Tyrone, in truth, were a shadow of the team that won two All-Irelands in three years – there has been a lot of talk about northern systems and methods and tactics but a team is only as good as its players, and when that team can no longer call on the talents of Peter Canavan, Sean Cavanagh, Brian McGuigan and the others it will not be easy to paper over the cracks. For Mayo, twenty-four hours after a masterclass in the Connacht Under-21 Final in Castlebar, the future looks rosy indeed.

David Clarke, after some nervous moments at the start of the league, is taking his chance after Kenneth O’Malley’s cruel injury, and Clarke’s booming kickouts add considerably to his reassuringly pantheresque patrol of his goal. Suspicions that Aidan Higgins wintered not wisely but too well are countered by the fact that having someone with a little bit of beef on the bone on the full back line might do Mayo no harm for a change.

Aidan’s namesake, Keith Higgins, is a more vexed question. It has long been a debating point in Gaelic Football’s groves of academe as to whether football ability is an asset or a liability in the men who man the rearguard. The idea is that the members of the fullback line shouldn’t be too interested in the football at all, but in clinging tightly to their man in the fashion of the butcher’s dog and spare bones. Paidí Ó Sé, who knows something of the art, remarks in his autobiography that when he was playing for Kerry in the seventies he could still hear his old teacher roaring at him “Ó Sé! Where’s your man?” Paidí posits the view that question of his man’s whereabouts should be the only thing bothering a fullback on game day. Keith Higgins’ surging runs forward are thrilling, but seeing his man run at Higgins in the opposite direction has rather the opposite effect on the Mayo faithful. It seems unfair to hold a man’s football ability against him, but fair doesn’t always come into it I’m afraid.

The half-back line looks potent whatever combination O’Mahony chooses, and Billy Joe Padden’s perpetual presence at centre-half suggests that the shirt belongs to An tIolar Breá Iorrais for the foreseeable. Pat Harte has been outstanding all year in midfield, and O’Mahony’s pick in midfield is returning to the riches with which O’Mahony was spoiled in his first incarnation as bannisteoir Mhaigh Eo, injuries permitting of course.

Up front, Conor might be a scamp but he’s our scamp, and these recent days’ ability to keep his head up under shocking abuse from his markers (some of whom have been very much of the butchers’ dog school that An Spailpín was bigging up earlier) and his newfound fondness for the major score mean his place in the corner is copper-fastened. Michael Conroy was a revelation today, even if he didn’t get on the scoresheet as often as he would have liked. He tormented his man, and that’s not bad. Ger Brady struggled in the first half but once he cracked over his first point Brady’s confidence blossomed, and soon he was cracking over some more, casting markers from around him, setting up Conor Mortimer’s hat-trick goal and generally having a fine old time for himself. The search continues for a full-forward, and the county still wonders about Ciarán McDonald’s return and how he will integrate into John O’Mahony’s second coming, but there are far more pluses than minuses now the line has been drawn under the League season. The news that Mayo’s League semi-final opponents are Galway will have given great pause for thought on the long trek home but Mayo cannot but be happy with their Easter Sunday performance.

FOCAL SCOIR: While reflecting on Dublin’s demise today, An Spailpín Fánach cannot but reflect on the very nature of the GAA, and whether or not Dublin get it at all. One constant mantra in that disgraceful old lie about “Dublin needing to win an All-Ireland” is that children in Dublin are tempted by so many other sports, and the GAA needs to compete with those. What neither the Dublin GAA, nor their acolytes in the media – An Spailpín half expects tomorrow’s Irish Times sports pages to be bordered in black, you know – fail to realise is that the GAA is not another sport. The GAA is a cultural organisation, and that’s what makes it different, and that’s what makes it the best.

This is a point on which our hosts today in Tyrone are very clear. The Tyrone Board did not miss the opportunity to commemorate the 91st anniversary of the Rising, and the pre-match entertainment featured some marvellous traditional singing from Caola Reid, and an exhibition of set-dancing, when Ciara McAtasney, Nicola Currie, Erin Devlin, Kayleigh Devin, Rachel Cummings, Aileen Hughes, Paula Donaghy and Clare Cullen gave the boards some serious walloping in 4/4 time. I’m also happy to confirm that there was no cheering before the end of the anthem, something that should catch on nationally, but is sadly unlikely to.

Tyrone have got some bad press over the years and brought a lot of it on themselves if the unpleasant truth be told but today their hospitality for their visitors was first rate. The man on the PA, whose voice was just like that of the late Benedict Kiely, Tyrone’s second-greatest literary figure, started naming what Mayo had won as the team ran out, including the Under 21 title of last year and yesterday’s Connacht title, and then asked the Tyrone faithful to “show your respect for their achievements,” An Spailpín was genuinely stunned. I thought that level of courtesy and respect for opponents had been lost forever, or ruled out of existence by some division of the Modernity Police. Not only that, but in the light of the vitriol that can spew between Armagh and Tyrone supporters on the message boards of this world wide web, I thought it a lovely touch to have a panel in the program congratulating Crossmaglen – surely the greatest club team we have seen – on their fourth All-Ireland title last weekend.

The best was yet to come. At half-time The Boys of the County Mayo was played – whether it was a recording (and my guess would be John Feeney if it was) or a member of the local Scór, it was lovely to hear it, and sung beautifully. Tyrone lost a battle today, but at least they know what they’re playing for every time they pull on the shirt. Ná laga Dia na Gaeil den scoth seo go deo.

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